How to Conduct a Needs & Strengths Assessment

How to Do a Boss Needs and Strengths Assessment for a Nonprofit Organization

Projects. The very word makes some nonprofits scurry around and try to develop something trivial out of thin air to look like they are doing something. Or, sadly, to develop something that they may not need just because there is grant funding out there for that type of project. The former is referred to as draining the money, and the latter is coined chasing the money. Before you even get to projects, you need to make sure your nonprofit has a strong, clear mission and vision statement, has conducted a SWOT analysis, has reviewed lessons learned, and has SMART objectives and goals. If you don’t know what I am talking about, please refer to my other podcasts!

Now you are in a great place in your strategic planning to actually identify the best projects that will support your mission and vision and meet the needs that your nonprofit addresses for your target demographic.

Woo-hoo! So, should you jump on and see what the federal government is funding so that you can develop projects around where the money is? Honestly, don’t do that.

First, develop your projects that are centric to your mission and vision. Then go grant hunting. We will get into more grant specifics after this strategic planning segment, but don’t dismiss how important it is to first get all your ducks in a row. Otherwise, even if you do get that funding, you may not be able to sustain it or meet the objectives.

Believe me, I’ve seen those organizations that just chase the money and some of them do get the grants awarded, but that is not necessarily a good thing. I have seen organizations give money back to funding sources because they cannot meet the objectives due to the project never being aligned with their mission and vision or meeting their beneficiaries’ needs.

That’s where the good old business plan comes into play. The secret is, if you have been following this Strategic Planning series, then you have already developed a chunk of your business plan. But before you start listing your projects and dumping a bunch of money into them, let’s stop and take a breath and do a Needs & Strengths Assessment. I know, one of you just swore and the other one rolled their eyes. I know you are itching to get out there, but if you really want your project to succeed and not have to restart it twenty times, then this step is vital.

Needs and Strengths Assessment – What it is

First, you need to identify the needs and strengths that your beneficiaries or target demographic faces. Many nonprofits and organizations only utilize a Needs Assessment to understand the challenges and be aware of what projects are actually needed and leave out the strengths segment.

But savvy, productive nonprofits implement a Needs & Strengths Assessment to identify the particular barriers and strengths for their beneficiaries or target priority. The difference between the two is that the straight-up Needs Assessment is only focused on the challenges and the lack of resources. This approach does not take into account the strengths in the community and what is working.

When you know the positive aspects of what works in a community, you know what to leverage and grow. This approach is more solution-oriented and reduces risks of coming up with designs that might not work to solve problems.

For example, a Needs Assessment might just be a survey listing all the barriers that your beneficiaries face, so you are still kind of in the dark of what could work. Sure, you know what you need, but you still do not have a clear picture of what might work. A Needs & Strengths Assessment may also include questions to find out what strengths exist in the community (or for the individual or target), and possible open-ended questions for focus groups to create a platform for brainstorming solutions.

Don’t Duplicate Projects

“There are no original ideas. There are only original people.” ~ Barbara Grizzuti Harrison

Another item that might manifest through your Needs & Strengths Assessment could be that there are already other nonprofits doing projects that you think are needed. Let’s face it, just because you thought of a project doesn’t mean the same type of project isn’t already out there.

You may find out that another nonprofit is already facilitating a service/project that would meet the needs of your community, but your beneficiaries face transportation challenges to get to those services. That information would be very important, as you could then see if it would be more efficient for your organization to conduct similar services in your geographic area, or if providing transportation to existing services in other areas would be more beneficial/economical.

The Methods

A Needs & Strengths Assessment may take many different forms depending on your resources (time, money, and people). Typical methods include written or online surveys, focus groups, observations, testimonials, phone surveys, and so forth. But altogether there are similar designs as the end results of finding out the needs and strengths are the same. These characteristics include:

  • A pre-set list of questions
  • A pre-determined sample of the number and types of people to answer these questions chosen in advance
  • The results of the survey are utilized for a call-to-action of actually addressing the needs and levering the strengths
  • Can be shared on your website or with partners
  • Support grants and other funding requests

Conducting a Needs & Strengths Assessment will help your nonprofit increase credibility among partners, provide support when applying for project funding from funding sources, and enhance relationships with your beneficiaries. How often do organizations think they know what their beneficiaries need (but never ask)? And then develop a project that only fails, and the staff become discouraged and blame it on the beneficiaries. Ouch. Yes, that happens. Understanding needs and strengths are vital in formulating projects. Do not assume you know what is needed without conducting an assessment…we all know what ASSUME stands for. Rather, find out what people need and what they find useful.

But I don’t have the money

Conducting a Needs & Strengths Assessment does not need to cost a small fortune. Sure, extensive research can cost a pretty penny, but finding out basic needs and strengths does not need to entail hiring a Survey Consultant for $50,000. The Assessment can be as simple as drafting together some questions, then sitting in a group with your beneficiaries, and asking them the questions. You could even draft out the questions and send out out the survey through Survey Monkey (free for less than 10 questions) or through Google Docs (free with unlimited questions and includes super cool graphs with the results).

What Questions? Wait, isn’t that a question?

First, you will want to identify what you want to find out.

For example, if diabetes is a huge epidemic in your community, you might want to find out what type of diabetes is the most prevalent, and what projects would best be developed to prevent and/or assist individuals with diabetes. Some questions could include: what type of diabetes do you have? What is your age? What is your biggest challenge with disease maintenance? What is the biggest strength in the community to support disease maintenance?

Before you go large scale and survey hundreds or thousands of people, go ahead and test out your survey. For example, I was conducting a survey for diabetics and I had to scrap some of the initial surveys. A question on the survey was:

“What type of diabetes do you have?”


  • A. Type I
  • B. Type II
  • C. Gestational Diabetes (when pregnant)

I had an overwhelming number taking the survey tell me that there weren’t sure as they know they had been diagnosed with diabetes, but couldn’t remember what type they had. This information revealed a need of education on diabetes! So I had to redo the question on the survey and include a fourth answer: Not Sure.

So first, try out a small sample size to account for any articulations in your questions or answers.

Should I have Open-Ended Questions or Pre-Set Answers?

The survey design is an internal process. Some surveyors think that pre-set answers skew data and are misleading. Other surveyors have an idea of what needs and strengths and believe that pre-set answers will lend focus and provide the best results. It is a no-brainer that pre-set answers will lead to a survey taking less time to complete. Open-ended questions may result in answers being so varied that you have no real way forward. Often, I see a mix of both of these survey types. Such as,

“What type of diabetes do you have?”

A. Type I

B. Type II

C. Gestational (when pregnant)

D. Not Sure

E. Other: ____________________________________________

Another way you can do a survey is through a Likert scale. This is the one that has from least to greatest or from weakest to strongest. So an example might be:

Answer how true this question is, by circling one answer:

1. My family supports my lifestyle change: Strongly, Somewhat Strongly, Neutral, Somewhat Weak, Weakest

In any case, you don’t want to jump around too much by alternating design. For example, if you use pre-set answers, then consistently use this approach. Do not intermix this with the Likert scale as it will be confusing for people taking the surveys.

Focus Groups

I often look at surveys (like the above) as quantitative information and focus groups as qualitative information. For focus groups, it is best to ask between three to six open-ended questions and allow the participants to freely share information. This is great because these discussions will usually lead to much deeper conversations than what can be discovered through a survey. It is great to have surveys and also conduct a focus group.

Focus groups can be conducted at cafes or public areas and be very casual. Or you could find out if a local community college or university would let you rent or utilize a room. It is nice to have this conversation in a neutral place to allow for a natural flow. Inviting about five to eight people is a good amount. Any more than that and some people may not talk or there will be some that dominate the conversation.

You can always conduct a blend of surveys and focus groups to get both quantitative and qualitative information.


Okay, incentives are a hard one. Do you provide incentives for people taking the surveys, such as pens (or other nonprofit swag), gift certificates, or a chance to enter a raffle? Some people say this will skew data as you may get people filling out the surveys just to get an incentive. While this may be correct, you will get an exponential number of people filling out the surveys compared to not having incentives. Like, for real.

I do believe in providing incentives, not just because it increases the number of people taking surveys, but also because it provides an exchange or a ‘thank you’ for people’s time. While we all may believe we are genuinely nice people and polite, we may discuss our true selves in how we react to people who call on the phone and ask us to take a survey.

Or if you are a surveyor, you will find out how people really are! Believe you me, it can take some major hits on the self-confidence if you are surveying random people in public! Incentives can help break down this wall. Remember, people are giving up their time to give you information.

On the other hand, some people really appreciate you asking their opinion and will be true fans after they fill out a survey. They will know that they have a voice and this is powerful.

Sample Size

Okay, like many things in this article there are different views on sample size. Based on the Dillman method (Dillman, 2008), a sample size of 6% is an appropriate indicator of the entire base population. This is typically accepted as a good sample size.

For example, according to the Department of Guam Public Health & Social Services, 12% of the adult population has diabetes. Say if the entire adult population is 100,000, then 12% would be 12,000 people who have diabetes. Of those 12,000 people, a 6% sample size would amount to 720 people. That could be your target number. Of course, this isn’t set in stone, as there are other sampling size percentages, but you will want to define your target number.


Nonprofits are an essential part of society and their projects make a significant difference in those they serve. It is important to remember that your projects, and presence in the community, should always be in alignment with your organization’s mission. Don’t create a program just because there is grant funds for it. There will be funds for the projects in line with your mission and vision statement. If you have completed your SWOT analysis, reviewed past lessons learned, and have SMART objectives and goals (check out other podcasts on Grant Writing & Funding), then you are in a position to move forward strategically on projects.  Do your research on projects similar to yours to determine necessity and relevancy, and then begin your Needs & Strengths Assessment with the tips provided. Stay on track with a clear plan and your projects will become a reality!

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